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VII. What world could furnish materials to so elevated a fancy? One only, that of chivalry; for none is so far from the actual. Alone and independent in his castle, freed from all the ties which society, family, toil, usually impose on the actions of men, the feudal hero had attempted every kind of adventure, but yet he had done less than he imagined: the boldness of his deeds had been exceeded by the madness of his dreams. For want of useful enıployment and an accepted rule, his brain had laboured on an unreasoning and impossible track, and the urgency of his wearisomeness had increased beyond measure his craving for excitement. Under this stimulus his poetry had become a world of imagery. Insensibly strange conceptions had grown and multiplied in his brains, one over the other, like ivy woven round a tree, and the original stock had disappeared beneath their rank growth and their obstruction. The delicate fancies of the old Welsh poetry, the grand ruins of the German epics, the marvellous splendours of the conquered East, all the relics which four centuries of adventure had dispersed among the minds of men, had become gathered into one great dream; and giants, dwarfs, monsters, the whole medley of imaginary creatures, of superhuman exploits and splendid follies, were grouped about a unique conception, exalted and sublime love, like courtiers prostrated at the feet of their king. It was an ample and an elastic subject-matter, from which the great artists of the age, Ariosto, Tasso, Cervantes, Rabelais, had hewn their poems. But they belonged too completely to their own time, to admit of their belonging to one which had passed.
Ariosto, an ironical epicurean, delights his gaze with it, and grows merry over it, like a man of pleasure, a sceptic who rejoices doubly in his pleasure, because it is sweet, and because it is forbidden. By his side poor Tasso, inspired by a fanatical, revived, factitious Catholicism, amid the tinsel of an old school of poetry, works on the same subject, in sickly fashion, with great effort and scant success. Cervantes, himself a knight, albeit he loves chivalry for its nobleness, perceives its folly, and crushes it to the ground, with heavy blows, in the mishaps of the wayside inns. More coarsely, more openly, Rabelais, a rude commoner, drowns it with a burst of laughter in his merriment and nastiness. Spenser alone takes it seriously and naturally. He is on the level of so much nobleness, dignity, reverie. He is not yet settled and shut in by that species of exact common sense which was to found and cramp the whole modern civilisation. In his heart he inhabits the poetic and misty land from which men were daily drawing further and further away. He is enamoured of it, even to its very language; he retains
1 Cervantes smiled Spain's chivalry away.'—Byron's Don Juan, canto xiii. st. xi.-TR,
the old words, the expressions of the middle-age, the style of Chaucer, especially in the Shepherd's Calendar. He enters straightway upon the strangest dreams of the old story-tellers, without astonishment, like a man who has still stranger ones on his own account. Enchanted castles, monsters and giants, duels in the woods, wandering ladies, all spring up under his hands, the medieval fancy with the mediæval generosity; and it is just because this world is unlifelike that this worid suits his humour.
Is there in chivalry sufficient to furnish him with matter? That is but one world, and he has another. Beyond the valiant men, the glorified images of moral virtues, he has the gods, finished models of sensible beauty ; beyond Christian chivalry he has the pagan Olympus; beyond the idea of heroic will, which can only be satisfied by adventures and danger, he has the idea of calm energy, which is found in itself to be in harmony with actual existence. For such a poet there is not enough in one ideal; beside the beauty of effort he places the beauty of happiness; he couples them, not with the preconception of a philosopher, nor the design of a scholar like Goethe, but because they are both lovely; and here and there, amid weapons and passages of arms, he distributes satyrs, nymphs, Diana, Venus, like Greek statues amid the turrets and lofty trees of an English park. There is nothing forced in the union; the ideal epic, like a heaven above them, unites and harmonises the two worlds; a beautiful pagan dream carries on a beautiful dream of chivalry; the link consists in the fact that they are both beautiful. At this elevation the poet has ceased to observe the differences of races and civilisations. He can introduce into his picture whatever he will; his only reason is, “That suited;' and there could be no better. Under the glossy-leaved oaks, by the old trunk so deeply rooted in the ground, he can see two knights cleaving each other, and the next instant a company of Fauns who came there to dance. The beams of light which have poured down upon the velvet moss, the wet turf of an English forest, can reveal the dishevelled locks and white shoulders of nymphs. Have you not seen it in Rubens? And what signify discrepancies in the happy and sublime illusion of a fancy? Are there more discrepancies? Who perceives them, who feels them? Who feels not, on the contrary, that to speak truth, there is but one world, that of Plato and the poets; that actual phenomena are but outlines — mutilated, incomplete, and blurred outlines—wretched abortions scattered here and there on Time's track, like fragments of clay, half moulded, then cast aside, lying in an artist's studio; that, after all, invisible forces and ideas, which for ever renew the actual existences, attain their fulfilment only in imaginary existences; and that the poet, in order to express nature in its entirety, is obliged to embrace in his sympathy all the ideal forms by which nature has been expressed ? This is the greatness of his work; he has succeeded in seizing beauty in its fulness, because he cared for nothing but beauty.
The reader will feel that such a poem cannot be recounted. In fact, there are six poems, each of a dozen cantos, in which the action is ever diverging and converging again, becoming confused and starting again; and all the imaginations of antiquity and of the middle-age are, I believe, combined in it. The knight 'pricks along the plaine,' among the trees, and at a crossing of the paths meets other knights with whom he engages in combat; suddenly from within a cave appears a monster, half woman and half serpent, surrounded by a hideous offspring; further on a giant, with three bodies; then a dragon, great as a hill, with sharp talons and vast wings. For three days he fights him, and twice overthrown, he comes to himself only by aid of a gracious ointment.' After that there are savage tribes to be conquered, castles surrounded by flames to be captured. Meanwhile ladies are wandering in the midst of forests, on white palfreys, exposed to the assaults of miscreants, now guarded by a lion which follows them, now delivered by a band of satyrs who adore them. Magicians work manifold charms; palaces display their festivities; tilt-yards furnish tournaments;' sea- gods, nymphs, fairies, kings, mingle feasts, surprises, dangers.
You will say it is a phantasmagoria. What matter, if we see it? And we do see it, for Spenser does. His sincerity wins us over. He is so much at home in this world, that we end by finding ourselves at home in it. He has no appearance of astonishment at astonishing events; he comes upon them so naturally, that he makes them natural ; he defeats the miscreants, as if he had done nothing else all his life. Venus, Diana, and the old deities, dwell by his threshold, and enter, and he takes no notice of them. His serenity becomes ours. We grow credulous and happy by contagion, and to the same extent as he. How could it be otherwise ? Is it possible to refuse credence to a man who paints things for us with so just a detail and in so lively colours ? Here he describes a forest for you on a sudden; are you not instantly in it with him? Beech trees with their silvery stems, loftie trees iclad with sommers pride, did spred so broad, that heavens light did hide;' rays of light tremble on the bark and shine on the ground, on the reddening ferns and low bushes, which, suddenly smitten with the luminous track, glisten and glimmer. Footsteps are scarcely heard on the thick beds of heaped leaves; and at distant intervals, on the tall herbage, drops of dew are sparkling. Yet the sound of a horn reaches us through the foliage ; how sweetly it falls on the ear, with what unlooked for cheer in this vast silence! It resounds more loudly; the clatter of a hunt draws near; ' eft through the thicke they heard one rudely rush ;' a nymph approaches, the most chaste and beautiful in the world. Spenser sees her; more, he kneels before her:
*Her face so faire, as flesh it seemed not,
And in her cheekes the vermeill red did shew
Like two faire marble pillours they were seene,
He is on his knees before her, I repeat, as a child on Corpus Christi day, among flowers and perfumes, transported with admiration, so that he sees a heavenly light in her eyes, and angel's tints on her cheeks, even impressing into her service Christian angels and pagan graces to adorn and wait upon her; it is love which brings such visions before him:
'Sweet love, that doth his golden wings embay
In blessed nectar and pure pleasures well.' Whence this perfect beauty, this modest and charming dawn, in which he assembles all the brightness, all the sweetness, all the virgin